When Queen’s Park Rangers appointed Neil Warnock as manager, a little over a year ago, I was aghast: “Fourteen years since QPR last played in the Premier League, but if the chairman thinks Warnock is the answer, he must be asking the wrong question.” How wrong was I?
Warnock has attracted contempt for most of his career. It’s not just the I hate Neil Warnock Group on Facebook that put me off, or the adoption of the anagrammatical nickname “Colin _ _ _ _ _ _ ” by opposing fans that worried me. Look him up on YouTube and you will find a whole selection of videos showing Warnock spouting vitriol at, or about, almost everyone who has ever stopped his teams winning. Even The Times offered a column of condemnation in 2007. And supporters of clubs he had previously managed warned that QPR followers should take a neck brace and sunglasses to matches, because the ball would spend so much time in the air. I feared that QPR would fall even further from their footballing pedigree of yesteryear.
Not a bit of it. The football has been entertaining. The results even better. QPR have won the Championship with room to spare, giving them promotion to the Premier League. On camera, this season, Warnock has been engaging, enthusiastic and as gracious about his opponents as he is about his own team. Even in defeat – which hasn’t happened often this season – his use of the F-word has been measured: “That’s football”, he said after QPR unexpectedly suffered their worst defeat of the season (4-1) to bottom club Scunthorpe.
So what has happened to Warnock? Love, it seems, has changed the man. Love for Adel. And what a love it is …
Adel Taarabt is a 21-year old Moroccan whom Warnock found at QPR when he arrived at the club. Skilful and selfish with the ball in equal measure, Taarabt was as likely to give away possession as to set up a colleague. QPR have flourished with players like that before. But never with one as petulant as Taarabt – if the match wasn’t going his way, he would want to be taken off – and never before with a blood-and-guts manager like Warnock in charge.
But Warnock saw something in Taarabt that he hadn’t seen in any other footballer of his ilk. Against all precedent, Warnock promised Taarabt a place in the side whenever he was available and built a team formation designed to maximise his talents. Warnock even made Taarabt captain to instil in him a sense of responsibility to others.
Taarabt has flourished and the results have flowed. The relationship between manager and player seems to be little short of love. Yes, love – albeit that Warnock cannot speak the name. The manager is only ever heard to say “Tar-but” or “Tar-a-but”. Never “Ta-ra(b)t”.
Some people maintain that a leopard cannot change its spots (or, in the case of a QPR manager, his hoops). I have never really believed that. I do accept that sometimes it’s not enough just to want to change. Some leopards need more than that. Maybe Warnock has calmed down with age and experience. Or perhaps he was affected by the realisation that, with QPR, he had almost certainly been given his last realistic opportunity to manage a side in the Premier League. I don’t know. I’ve never met the man. But I like to think it all changed when Neil and Adel met and found a love that dares to win the game.